"It thus seems supremely important to document the anthropological material through uncensored accounts of natives in their own words and in their own language, to preserve the original meaning.” The Results of the Jesup Expedition, Franz Boas at the 16th International Congress of the Americanists, Vienna 1908

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A Brief History of the Jesup North Pacific Expedition

The Jesup North Pacific Expedition (1897-1902) was sponsored by the American Museum of Natural History in New York City to investigate the links between the people and the cultures of the Pacific Northwest Coast of North America and the Eastern Coast of Siberia. Ostensibly the goal of the expedition was to prove the Bering Strait Migration theory which postulated that the North American continent was populated by the migration of Asian peoples across the Bering Strait. However, Franz Boas, the leader of the expedition was more concerned with documenting the cultures on both sides of the Northern Pacific that he and many other anthropologists feared were soon to be lost to colonialism and acculturation.

Because many northern peoples had been decimated by disease and were under pressure to assimilate to Russian or North American society, members of the Expedition also believed that they were making a final record of vanishing cultures.

With a sense of urgency, they observed social practices, made wax-cylinder recordings of folktales and oral literature for linguistic analysis, collected artifacts, amassed data on physical "types," and made numerous photographs, producing a detailed record of life in the Greater North Pacific Region one hundred years ago. Although the expedition did not yield a precise ethno-history of the first Americans, it provided a wealth of data on variations and connections between populations on both sides of Pacific that scholars still draw on today. This record is an equally valuable resource for northern peoples today.

Expedition scientists systematically studied the cultural, racial, and linguistic attributes of peoples living in the Greater North Pacific Region. This huge area which extends like a giant arc from the Northwest Coast of North America to the Bering Strait and along the Pacific Coast of Siberia to the cultural borderlands of China, Korea, and Japan.

Morris K. Jesup, then president of the Museum, financed the expedition. On the North American Side, Boas, with Livingston Farrand and James Teit, studied the Lillooet, Shuswap, and Chilcotin of British Columbia. Teit would also work with the Nlaka'pamux. At the village of Bella Coola, Boas joined his principal assistant and collaborator, George Hunt, to work with Nuxalk informants and Kwakwaka'wakw (Kwakiutal) texts. In the expedition's second year, he visited Alert Bay to continue his life-long research with Hunt on Kwakwala'wakw culture. John R. Swanton researched the Haida of the Queen Charlotte Islands.

The Siberian team covered a far larger area under much more difficult conditions. Berthold Laufer studied the Nivkh, Evenk, and Ainu of Sakhalin Island. He then crossed over to the Siberian mainland to study the Nanai and related peoples of the Amur River region. Waldemar Bogoras began his research on Chukotka at the mouth of the Anadyr River, spending four months with the Chukchi who made their summer camps along the seacoast. Leaving his wife behind to continue expedition work in Marinsky Post, Bogoras spent the next year journeying through a territory ranging from Indian Point and Saint Lawrence Island in the northeast to Kamchatka in the southwest.

Traveling mostly by dogsled, he continued his research in communities of Chukchi, Even, and Asiatic Eskimo. Waldemar Jochelson and Dina Jochelson-Brodskaya worked with the Maritime Koryak of Kamchatka and the Yukagir in the vicinity of the Kolyma River, traveling by sled, river raft, or on foot when a navigable river unexpectedly froze. On their westward journey home, the Jochelsons traveled through Yakutia, where they researched and collected from the Sakha. Correspondence from the field gives a vivid picture of the conditions under which these several scientists worked.